05 August 2023
‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,’ Samuel Johnson once famously said, ‘for there is in London all that life can afford.’
And when I am in London, I never tire of visiting Dr Johnson’s House at No 17 Gough Square, one of the small courts in the labyrinth of tangled lanes and ancient alleyways on the north side of Fleet Street.
Samuel Johnson lived and worked in the house from 1748 to 1759, paying a rent of £30, and there he completed compiling his Dictionary of the English Language. He shared the house in Gough Square with Francis Barber (1742-1801), the freed slave who was his black manservant and heir, and his cat Hodge.
Dr Johnson’s House was built at the end of the 17th century by a City wool merchant, Richard Gough. The timber-framed, brick townhouse, was part of a development in Gough Square, but Dr Johnson’s House at No 17 is the only one to survive.
The four-storey building has retained many of its period features, including its panelling, an open staircase, wooden floorboards, a cellarette cupboard, coal holes and the original door handles.
The 18th-century front door still has its curious anti-burglary devices intact, including a heavy chain with a corkscrew latch and a spiked iron bar over the fanlight.
After Johnson left in 1759, No 17 Gough Square had a variety of uses. It had other lodgers, was used as a small hotel and bed and breakfast, and was once a printers’ workshop and studio.
It had fallen into a sad state of disrepair by 1911, with water leaking through the roof. But it was saved and restored by Cecil Harmsworth, a Liberal politician and newspaper magnate.
The house became a social club for auxiliary firemen during World War II, offering respite during the Blitz. During the air raids, the house was struck on several occasions. The garret, where Samuel Johnson worked on his Dictionary, was badly damaged and a new roof had to be built after the war.
Today, the house is open to the public with its collection relating to Johnson, a research library, restored interiors and its many original features. Visitors often describe the house as a hidden gem, but No 17 Gough Square is also a tranquil spot in the heart of the bustling City.
We stopped at a number of reminders of Samuel Johnson in Gough Square. At the opposite end of the square, facing the house, Hodge is remembered in Jon Bickley’s bronze statue of Hodge, unveiled in 1997 by Sir Roger Cook, then Lord Mayor of London.
The statue shows Hodge sitting next to a pair of empty oyster shells atop a copy of Johnson’s famous Dictionary, with the inscription ‘a very fine cat indeed.’ The inscription praises Hodge in Johnson’s own words as ‘a very fine cat indeed,’ and declares: ‘The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.’
Visitors walking by the statue often place coins in the oyster shells. To mark special occasions and anniversaries a pink piece of counsel’s ribbon may be seen tied to one of the oyster shells or around Hodge’s neck.
Jon Bickley believes he has a kinship with Johnson. ‘It seems Dr Johnson and I were meant to come together … He was born in Lichfield, in the Midlands, and I was brought up just outside it. I can close my eyes and picture his birth house.’
Bickley modelled the cat on his own pet, Thomas Henry, and explains: ‘I made Hodge about shoulder height for the average adult, which is just about right for putting an arm around.’
Close to Hodge, Francis Barber House is on a corner of Gough Square and Hind Court, that leads on into Wine Office Court.
The name of the house recalls Francis Barber, who born Quashey in Jamaica, and who was Johnson’s manservant in London from 1752 until Johnson died in 1784. Johnson made him his residual heir, with £70 a year, and expressing the wish that Barber move from London to Lichfield. Johnson also left Barber books, papers and a gold watch. Barber was also Johnson’s assistant in revising his Dictionary and other works.
After Johnson’s death, Barber moved to Lichfield, where he opened a draper’s shop and married a local woman. Barber became an important source for James Boswell about Johnson’s life, and his descendants still live in the Lichfield area.
Did Samuel Johnson or Francis Barber ever stroll from Gough Square through Hind Square and the labyrinthine alleys into Wine Court Close for a drink in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese?
We had to work our way through the alleys and the laneways to find out for ourselves. But more about that tomorrow.
We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (6 August 2023), which may also be celebrated as the Feast of the Transfiguration. Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship remembers Oswald, King of Northumbria, Martyr (642).
Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection.
Having looked at the ‘Te Deum’ window in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth, on Monday (1 August) at the end of a series of reflections on the windows in Tamworth, I continued my morning reflections this week in these ways:
1, Looking at a depiction of the canticle ‘Te Deum’ in a church;
2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;
3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.
The ‘Te Deum’ Window, Sheffield Cathedral:
The Chapel of the Holy Spirit in Sheffield Cathedral dates from 1930. It is part of the 1930s extension and was planned as a new Lady Chapel of the reoriented cathedral.
The vaulted ceiling is carved with roses, lilies and sunflower motifs. The wooden stalls and canopies were designed by Sir Ninian Comper. The reredos commemorates Freemasons who died during World War I.
The chapel is dominated by the great ‘Te Deum’ stained glass window, made in 1948 by Christopher Webb (1886-1966). The window is in memory of the Rev George Campbell Ommanney (1850-1936), Vicar of Saint Matthew’s Parish, Sheffield, in 1882-1936. It was the gift of Ommanney’s friend Thomas Clifford Watson.
At the top of the window, inspired by the canticle Te Deum, is the dove of the Holy Spirit.
In the centre of the window, Christ is seated in glory, surrounded by prophets, martyrs and the faithful through the ages, as celebrated in the canticle.
The rich colours and beautiful detailed figures are characteristic of Christopher Rahere Webb, a major stained glass artist who was active from the 1920s into the early 1960s. In his small Orchard House Studio in St Albans, with only one or two assistants, Webb created hundreds of stained glass windows, many replacing ones destroyed during World War II.
Webb’s uncle was the architect Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930) and his older brother, Geoffrey, was also an accomplished stained glass artist.
Webb was given the middle name Rahere in honour of the Augustinian canon who founded the Priory and Hospital of Saint Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield. It was derelict by the end of the 19th century, and its restoration was entrusted to Sir Aston Webb, assisted by his brother Edward who was churchwarden there and whose passion was architecture.
Matthew 14: 1-12 (NRSVA):
14 At that time Herod the reports about Jesus; 2 and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 3 For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ 5 Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7 so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9 The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10 he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12 His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been ‘Reflections from the International Consultation.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Very Revd Dr Sarah Rowland Jones of the Church in Wales.
The USPG Prayer Diary today (5 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:
God of all grace, whose love desires the flourishing of all Your children, send us out to witness to this transforming power and to be agents of such amazing grace, Amen.
Lord God almighty,
who so kindled the faith of King Oswald with your Spirit
that he set up the sign of the cross in his kingdom
and turned his people to the light of Christ:
grant that we, being fired by the same Spirit,
may always bear our cross before the world
and be found faithful servants of the gospel;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Oswald:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org